(by Ezio Manzini, DESIS Network founder)
15th May 2021

As we have always done, DESIS will participate in the annual Cumulus Conference organizing a DESIS event. This year, the main Cumulus conference, which will be held from the 7th to the 11th of June, is titled: Design Culture(s). Coherently with this theme, the DESIS event (that will take place online on the 11th of June, from 11:10 to 12:50 CET) is titled Emerging design cultures(s). The cultural dimension of design for social innovation.

Emerging design culture(s) is conceived as a collective reflection on what transformative social innovation has brought and could bring to the culture of our contemporary societies in transition: an open, processual, situated, and Pluriversal idea of culture that must necessarily be a design-oriented culture made of many diverse cultures; that must be able to recognize complexity and help navigate it; and that must adopt a non-anthropocentric approach and work to regenerate the web of life, contributing to the construction of a more-than-human, more rightful and sustainable common world. 

1. The transformative social innovation that we have known so far, and of which DESIS is a part, is not just a set of solutions to otherwise insoluble problems. It is foremost a cultural innovation. In a world that pushes towards competitive hyper-individuality, the transformation of everything into commodities, the disposable extended from things to people and their activities, the exploitation of natural resources for pursuing human interests of a few, social innovation makes concrete ideas that go in the opposite direction and that speak of collaboration, of common goods, care and quality of relations with people and with the Planet.

This way of reading transformative social innovation is not a novelty but it has not been fully explored yet. This means that its potential has not been sufficiently recognized and discussed. On the contrary, considering mainly its practical dimension, a solutionist culture has often been promoted: a reductive idea, which sees social innovation, and the design capacity on which it is based, only as problem solvers (of specific and well-defined problems), overshadowing their role as sense makers. That is, their ability to produce quality criteria, ideas of well-being, and vision of possible futures.

Highlighting this cultural dimension, therefore, means recognizing that the practices of collaboration, the production of common goods, the ability to care that social innovation offers us are useful contributions to the construction of a new open, processual, and pluriversal design culture. The multiple crises (social/environmental in their entanglements) and the ecological transition we are facing, make it more necessary than ever.

From within this perspective, the task of design, considered as a sense maker (and not only as a problem solver) is to make these ideas evolve by producing wider, more articulated visions, adaptable to different contexts and, for this reason, capable of spreading and becoming part of a new common sense: the common sense of a planetary society that, finally, knows how to recognize itself as terrestrial. That is, as part of the web of life on this Planet.

2. To pay attention to the cultural dimension of social innovation is a constituent part of DESIS’s way of operating whose specific raison d’etre has been, from the beginning, to collaborate to produce a new, open, processual, diverse and plural idea of design culture: a term that refers to a set of values, visions, evaluation criteria that allow to orient, and today it is necessary to say re-orient, design processes in the different contexts in which they are situated. And this not only about the activities of the “expert designers”, but also to that implemented by a variety of social actors in their daily lives.

It is, therefore, necessary to develop reflective design research, capable of creating and consolidating bridges between practical experiences and philosophical reflection. To support this reflexivity, in DESIS, the design research that distinguishes the activities of the design laboratories has been paralleled by a line of initiatives called Philosophy Talks, whose goal is to connect design research with contemporary philosophical debate.

The bridge thus created can be crossed in two ways: the one that goes from philosophy to design practice, as it has been mainly done up to now, and the one that goes in the opposite direction: from reflective practice to philosophy. In other words, we can start from the practices of social innovation, and from reflections on them, to propose them as concrete themes with which to feed philosophical reflection. And this is exactly what Emerging design culture(s) intends to do.